Thursday, April 26, 2007

Visceral Knowledge

Yesterday I wrote about Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman. It's such a wonderful combination of deep thinking and great narrative style. It sweeps me away every time I look at a page where I've turned down the corner.

Hartman is a scholar who has studied the Atlantic slave trade and who has spent time in Ghana in connection with her search. I didn't say "research" because Lose Your Mother is about her search for something, she knows not what, that will relieve her of a chronic feeling of being a stranger. Because of the racism that accompanied slavery in the U.S., she has grown up feeling estranged in the United States. Looking for some sense of "belonging" in Ghana, she realizes that she is a stranger there, too.

I think she weaves so much personal feeling through this narrative in order to pull the reader into an empathetic response. For Hatrman, the institution of slavery is not a sanitized fact that one simply "knows about." It is not an injustice that had a beginning and an end, and is therefore over and done. In the most important sense, it is actually not "over" at all.

I, too, live in a time of slavery, she writes, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it. It is the ongoing crisis of citizenship.

Not only are Saidiya Hartman's brains an essential feature of the book, but also her emotional range and her physical reactions to people and places. She is brainy because her subject requires heavy thinking, but she never hits a tone that sounds professorial or academic. Her tone is level, committed to truth, and wide open to subjectivity. She is confessional when and because her purpose requires it. If her book were music, I would call it "Mozartean" in its range and its faultless sense of balance. To start reading this book is to lock in on it and absorb the whole of it quickly; and then to go back and reread; and then read again.

I want to share a passage from a chapter about her visits to a slave dungeon. On one of her early visits there, a teenager named Phyllis has attached herself to the obviously American Ms. Hartman. Phyllis has disrupted Hartman's mood with incessant chatter about movie stars and American pop culture. The memory of Phyllis calls other memories to Hartman's mind as she grapples with the meaning of the feeling that has driven her to make all these visits. As ideas and feelings form a sort of counterpoint, the story of the body becomes the dominant feature.

Read this and see if you would have quoted it if this were your blog and not mine:

I didn't believe this slave fort was sacred ground because terrible things had transpired here. Brutality doesn't make a place worthy of veneration. But I did believe that the gravity of what had happened required a degree of solemnity. I blamed Phyllis for what didn't happen. Only later did I realize there was nothing to see. I hadn't missed a thing.

Since then, I had come to the dungeon more than a dozen times. I had been with tour groups and I had wandered through alone. It had always felt as painfully incomplete as it did on my first visit. That is, when it was not absurd. Once an intoxicated docent led my friends and me through the castle, all the while complaining bitterly about Americans, ignoring our questions and bawling that he was an educated man who deserved better than this. On another occasion, I got into a squabble with a visitor from Sierra Leone when she remarked to her friend, "Why make such a big deal over one slave dungeon? There are so many dungeons in Africa."

Alone, I was the absurd figure. By myself, there was no one else to blame for my discomfort. There was no running away from it. I had come too late for it to make any difference at all, but I kept coming back. I was waiting. For whom or what I couldn't say or perhaps I was just embarrassed to admit. I couldn't explain it because it didn't make sense. I knew only how it felt, which was akin to choking. My chest grew congested and my palms started sweating and I got light-headed. My skin became tight and prickly, as if there was too little of it and too much of everything else. The hollow inside my chest expanded. I could feel my torso bulge and distend like a corpse swelling with gasses. And the emptiness was a huge balloon expanding inside me and pressing against my organs, until I could no longer breathe and was about to explode. Five minutes back in the sunlight and I was breathing easily again. No one could discern it was just the husk and not really me.

Each time it was the same. I failed to discover anything. No revenants lurked in the dungeons. The hold was stark. No hand embraced mine. No voices rang in my ears. Not one living creature dwelled here. Not even a fly darted about. In the silence, my own breath was loud and raucous.

I trudged from one side of the dungeon to the other; each step I took was tottering and indecisive. I moved back and forth with the slumped shoulders of defeat. I traced the perimeter of the cell disappointed. I stepped over the gutters traversing the floor. My hands glided over the walls, as though the rough surfaces were a script that I could read through my dull fingers. But the brush of my hands against stone offered no hint or clue. What I wanted was to feel something other than bricks and lime. What I wanted was to reach through time and touch the prisoners.

No comments: